Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Walking Dead, "A New Day" and "Starved for Help"

Developed and published by Telltale Games
Played on PC
       I love Telltale Games.  I’ve loved pretty much everything they’ve done since the first season of Sam & Max.  And one of the few games that gets excluded from that “pretty much” is Jurassic Park.  A pure disaster.  Advertised as Heavy Rain with dinosaurs, it came off like “I really love Heavy Rain and Jurassic Park, but I have no idea what actually made them good”.  After that, I was extremely worried about The Walking Dead.  After playing the first two episodes, The Walking Dead is what Jurassic Park should’ve been, and then some.
            The game takes place in the same continuity as the comics, but with a new cast of characters.  In the first episode, “A New Day”, we meet our main character, Lee Everett (Dave Fennoy), who’s been arrested and transported in a police car when the zombie infection starts.  After escaping, he runs into Clementine (Melissa Hutchison), and eventually another group of survivors as they try to get used to the new world.  The second episode, “Starved for Help”, picks up several months later, with the survivors low on food.  They meet someone from a dairy farm who promises both food and a safe haven, but, as per usual for the Walking Dead, nothing is as good as it seems.
            Like all of Telltale’s games, this is an adventure game, but of a different sort.  You don’t combine the rubber chicken with the molasses and feed it to the cat.  Instead, the puzzles are simpler and based in the zombie world.  For instance, one scene requires you to make your way through a motel parking lot filled with zombies.  The game’s main draw, though, are its conversations.  Rather than the standard adventure game procedure of “select everything, it doesn’t matter”, what you select does matter in how the characters perceive you and what happens next.  And most conversations have short time limits on choosing, so you have to think fast.
            The most amazing part of the game is the way your choices affect the game.  I’ll give you a tip outright: there’s an option to have the game give you story hints, like “Clementine will remember what you said”.  Turn that off.  The game is that much better when you never know exactly how your conversations and choices are going to change what happens.  There are some obvious big things.  In the first episode, when zombies attack, you have to choose between who’s going to live and who’s going to die.  This not only changes what happens in that episode, it affects the next one and how the story is going to play out.  And then there’s the smaller stuff.  In several instances, I was surprised when a seemingly pointless conversation was brought back up again.  There is a slight hiccup in the conversation whenever this happens, but somehow that just made it even better for me.  It was that feeling of “Oh man, it remembered what I did!”
            It also truly creates a character that feels like mine.  There are some things about Lee that are set in stone, like why he was arrested and his background.  But the player is the one defining his personality.  Is Lee going to be a peaceful negotiator in arguments, or is violence the answer?  Does he assume people can be saved from infection, or does he just kill them to make sure?  When Lee is given food to ration, who is he going to give it to and why?  All of these questions are things I had to answer during the game, and it engrosses me in each moment.  I don’t just think about the best solution.  There often isn’t a best solution, since somebody is going to be mad no matter what you do.  I have to think about what my answer is going to be.
            Of course, in a world full of zombies, there are zombie attacks.  These do rely on something like quick-time events, but they end up being frantic.  You don’t know when they’re going to happen, and you feel you have to act fast.  Considering that it’s really a slap on the wrist if you happen to die during one of these, it doesn’t feel too painful.  But something as simple as trying to kick a zombie in the head suddenly turns the simple conversation I was having into a sudden rush, and it works well. 
            The graphics also look good.  One of the big problems with Jurassic Park, and Telltale’s engine in general, is that it looks fine for cartoony licenses like Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit, but applying it to live-action licenses like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future ends up with very stylized or odd looking characters.  Here, by using cel-shading and basing itself on Charlie Adlard’s artwork, the game manages to polish over the engine’s problems without detracting from the mood of the game.  And when they show blood and guts, they don’t flinch about it.
            The Walking Dead stands as Telltale’s true transition from comedy to horror and drama.  It’s hard to judge the whole series on these two episodes, but if it continues in this direction, it stands to be a landmark for storytelling in games.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Duke Nukem Forever

Developed by 3D Realms, Triptych Games, and Gearbox Software
Published by 2K Games
Played on PC

            It’s been the joke of the gaming industry for ages.  The list of things that happened before it came out is tremendous.  And it was expected that, when 3D Realms shut its doors, it would never happen.  And yet it did.  Against impossible odds and a 12-year development time, Duke Nukem Forever came out.  And the final result is…well, about what you’d expect out of a game 12 years in the making.
            Duke Nukem (Jon St. John) has been in retirement since he defeated the aliens 12 years ago, becoming the world’s biggest celebrity in the downtime.  Unfortunately, the aliens are back.  And naturally, it’s up to Duke to save the world again.
            I’ll just get this out of the way at the start: the game is rampantly misogynistic.  Any female characters exist only to make crude jokes and get killed.  This isn’t NECESSARILY a fault that just this game has.  It’s just particularly painful here.  The times have changed since Duke Nukem 3D came out in 1996, and it can be hard to play this and see Duke’s world ignore all the changes.
            With that out of the way, let’s get to the gameplay.  It’s like what you’d expect a modern FPS to be.  You have regenerating health and a few weapons that let you blast alien baddies.  The main problem with the gameplay is that I always feel like I’m doing things because I have to do things.  I don’t feel like “Ah, I need to get to X, thus I need to do Y.”  It’s more like “Well, I don’t see anything else I can do, I might as well go in this direction and see if that’s right.”  Maybe by the end of the puzzle I’ve figured out “Oh, I was trying to do X”, but that’s just a shrug at that point.  I also feel that having the same baddies that were in the original game hurts this a good deal.  Sure, the enemies look new and do new things (the pig cops now come in several varieties).  But you get this constant feeling of “Been there, killed that”.  You don’t ever get a moment of surprise when an exciting new enemy pops out.  It’s just “Oh, I remember these guys” before you start shooting them.  Then again, the entire game has this feeling of “I’ve seen this before”.  I feel like it could easily be a slideshow of FPS trends over the past 12 years, because that’s what it feels like.  Remember when vehicle levels became huge?  What about when simple physics puzzles were the next big thing?  How about regenerating health and only being able to carry two guns (fortunately, a patch has updated this to 4, since the game is extremely difficult to play with just 2)?  You even get trends that have long gone the way of the dinosaur, like swimming levels and platforming segments.  And this also extends to Duke’s phrases.  Now I’ll be fair again and point to Duke Nukem 3D ripping off phrases from various action movies.  But when Duke says “Tonight we dine in hell” for the second time, it’s getting ridiculous.
            The humor in general in the game is just weak.  I think at best I may have given a few moments a “Heh, that’s actually kinda funny”.  At worst?  A mix of groan- and cringe-inducing.  The game has an obsession with the number 69 that gets old fast.  The one-liners that Duke says get tiresome (especially since they endlessly repeat).  And somewhere in the constant language and juvenile humor, you’d think they’d accidentally hit one genuinely hilarious moment.  They don’t.  They really, really don’t.
            For all the game’s fault, there are some genuinely good ideas here.  The game world’s interactivity is pretty incredible.  Flipping on and off light switches is been there kind of stuff.  The fact that you can pick up various objects and throw them at enemies, get and consume things from vending machines, draw on whiteboards, and play games like pinball or air hockey inside the world.  That’s the incredible stuff.   The interactivity also leads to the ability to increase your ego.  The regenerating health here is Duke’s ego, and doing things like lifting weights or looking at porn magazines increases it.  It’s a cool feature that encourages you to interact with everything.
            The game’s first half is also notably more interesting than the second half.  The first half takes place in a Nukemed Las Vegas, with Duke going through a Duke-themed casino, a Duke Burger, etc.  It not only plays into the sillier side of the game world, but it’s stuff you don’t see in every game.  This section also features my favorite level of the game, where Duke ends up shrunk inside the Duke Burger kitchen.  In order to get to a power switch, he has to platform through the entire kitchen.  It’s a genius level.  And yes, I ragged on the game for having platforming segments earlier, but when it ends up creating a part of the game where I genuinely have fun, who am I to argue?  Sadly, the second part turns into boring deserts and bland dam interiors that I could see in any FPS.
            I almost feel like saying that everybody should play Duke Nukem Forever just because it finally came out.  Of course, you’re going to end up playing this random mishmash of a game that occasionally has its shining moments in a game full of mediocrity.  It’s certainly not as bad as it could’ve been.  But it’s not as good as it should’ve been.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Developed by Kaos Studios
Published by THQ

            Homefront looked promising the first time I saw a trailer for it.  A game about a resistance force fighting an enemy on US soil.  Maybe not original (I can immediately think of Freedom Force), but I was excited.  And then I played it.  It’s hard to tell exactly when the excitement completely faded and I realized just what I was playing.
            The story takes place in the near future where, after Kim Jong-Il’s death, Kim Jong-un’s actions led to the reunification of North and South Korea, the takeover of Japan, and an invasion of a weakened America.  This is all explained in an opening cinematic over various newscasts, and expanded on through newspapers scattered throughout the game, which is actually a great use of a collectible to give the player more backstory.  The game itself stars the mute Robert Jacobs, a former pilot who’s being captured by the Koreans before he’s rescued by the resistance.
            The game actually has quite a few hard-hitting moral questions throughout, like the nature of war and the violence and terrible actions on both sides.  And it handles all of this in the most hilariously incompetent way possible.  It certainly doesn’t help that the campaign is a mere 7 levels long, and can be beaten in about 3 hours.  I’m not complaining about the length, I like short games.  But this is a case where the game scratches at the world it’s created and then shrugs and goes “We don’t have time for this”.  We get hints of the racism that has become prevalent, with Americans killing any Koreans they find, even American-born citizens.  But then the game just moves on.  It never gets back to the point.  Connors (and HOO-BOY will I get to Connors later) seems to have his own horrific tendencies, but he never develops as a character or becomes a villain or anything like that.  And at one point, one of your resistance teammates sees the Koreans bombing an American shantytown, realizes it’s thanks to the resistance’s last operation, and has a “My God what have we done” moment…then somebody tells him to shut up.  And the game just goes on.  Tough moral ambiguity?  Naw, go shoot some guys.
            Of course, the story is also offset by several other problems.  Let’s start with the product placement.  For whatever reason, Hooters and White Castle have significant product placement in the game, and it’s damn hard to take a game seriously when you have Connors yelling at you “There’s enemies in the Hooters!”  There’s also terrible scripting.  While I’m hanging back and poking around for newspapers, my teammates are just moving on.  Continuing on with dialogue that I can’t hear and can barely read in the subtitles, never mind if I had them off.  The scripting also means that you’re constantly waiting for teammates to finish a conversation before they open the door to continue the level, or in one instance, crawl under something and remove the invisible wall.  And there are LOTS of invisible walls.  I haven’t seen this many in a long time.
             The gameplay itself is…unremarkable.  I mean, I just got done playing Modern Warfare 3, and say what you will about Call of Duty, but I think it’s perfected what it does.  And you can tell that kind of thing when you play a game doing exactly what CoD does but not as good.  There’s regenerating health.  There’s a bunch of generic machine guns with different scopes as weapons.  I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it better.  The levels aren’t exciting.  There’s some nice moments.  One level that involves flying a helicopter around almost approaches genuinely good.  The AI clearly becomes scripted.  I’d die, go back, and watch the AI do the same exact thing it just did.  The regenerating health also feels…off.  I don’t know how to explain it.  It regenerates too fast when you’re hiding, but at the same time, if you’re out in the open and getting shot, you die almost instantly.  I guess you’re just expected to hide back in cover.  Or, as Connors would say, “GET YOUR ASS TO COVER!”
            Oh yes, I’m going to bring up Connors, and I’m going to talk about one of my least favorite things in games.  It seems to be constantly plaguing games I would at least somewhat enjoy otherwise, and it is what I will call “MOVE YOUR ASS!” syndrome.  It’s the feeling of the game that, if you don’t have somebody in your squad, preferably whichever person would be annoying on his own circumstances, constantly telling you to move and get to cover and shoot that guy and do this, you’re not going to do it.  And it REALLY gets on my nerves.  I just get tired of being constantly told to move my ass.  And the game does it no matter where I am.  I’m practically hugging Connor and he’s telling me to move my ass.  I’m a mile in front of him and he tells me to move my ass.  A scripted event happens, time to move my ass.  Games need to let my ass do whatever it wants to do.  I’ll go ahead and let this tangent go further off-topic by relating a story.  In Half-Life 2: Episode I, Alyx was originally going to keep telling the player to keep moving forward.  Valve, in their playtesting, realized everybody was hating Alyx, and quickly made her shut up.  So what if the player ends up screwing around with the gravity gun.  Let the player do what they want to do, and when they’re ready to move on, the game moves on with them.
            At the end of Homefront, the game just kinda…ends.  The final level’s a pretty cool location and all, but it just feels like you finished the second act, you’re pumped up for the third, and the credits start rolling.  Kaos Studios shut down shortly afterwards, and now it looks like THQ is heading for the same place.  Any hopes for a sequel that can actually take the game’s good ideas and make something great out of them are quickly diminishing.  There’s just so much better out there.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

In Time

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

            Some movies have a great concept that they just don’t know what to do with.  Let’s take In Time.  It’s about a world where time is money…literally.  Once people hit 25, they’re given a year to live; a year that also becomes their currency.  They can get more time and live longer, they can spend all their time and die.  It’s fascinating, and yet the movie just stumbles with it.
            Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) lives in a ghetto and is basically living a day at a time.  When Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) gives him over a hundred years and tells him of a conspiracy, Will uses it to go to the upper-class neighborhood (they’re divided into time zones.  Get used to the puns now, they keep coming.), where he has to escape pursuit by timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy, who’s 35 and looks it) and kidnaps Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried).
            The main problem with the plot is that it just lurches forward randomly.  There will be scenes that do nothing for the plot, and then suddenly the next scene moves the plot forward several steps.  It also radically transforms along the way, with Will eventually becoming a time-based Robin Hood.  Which brings me to my main problem with the movie: the moral ambiguity.  I keep trying to dissect the movie in my mind to see if it’s intentional or not, and no, I don’t think it is, and I’ll be writing this review on that assumption.  Which makes it really screwy.  Robbing the rich and giving to the poor is fine when money is just money.  When it’s people’s lives, it starts to hit this awful spot.  At one point, he carjacks somebody and takes all the passenger’s time except for a day, in what I assume is the ghetto.  Where there’s gangsters called Minutemen who also rob people’s time, so she’ll likely die (by the way, the giving of time is not consensual, as one scene has a character knocked out and most of her time stolen from her.  Since people can DIE if somebody takes all their time, this is a big question mark that’s just not solved).  But it’s OK because the movie says it is.  Now I sadly have to spoil the movie to question more of the moral ambiguity, so if you wish to not be spoiled, skip the next paragraph.
            Let’s start with one of the big scenes: when Will gets his 100+ years, he gives 10 years to his friend because they’ve been friends for 10 years.  It’s actually a really nice scene.  When Will comes back later, the wife is at the door and says the friend drank himself to death.  This is rather stupid on its own, but it just leads to bigger questions.  At the end, in what’s supposed to be a “poor rise up!” happy ending, the poor all get a huge influx of time.  And we’re meant to assume that none of them are going to waste it on drinking.  Oh, and by the way, this is all stolen time.  At some point, Will and Sylvia start robbing banks to get time.  I could see this movie another way, where Will voluntarily gives his own time away and ends up sacrificing himself.  That would give a decent moral.  Instead, the apparent moral is “The rich are stealing from you so rob banks”.  I just wish the movie had given one nod that Will is meant to be in the grey, at least an anti-hero.  Instead it just seems to show him as ultimately good and all the ambiguity is swept under the rug for a happy ending.
            There’s also a lot of the world that’s just not explored.  I understand that you can only do so much in a movie, but at the end I’m left wondering big questions like, “How did the world get here?  Why 25?  Do babies have their magic clocks already installed when they’re born?  Are people still born?”  Perhaps the biggest question of all is “With such an original idea, why wasn’t this movie better?”  It’s not awful.  There’s some nice scenes and an interesting world here, but it’s buried in an indecisive plot and troubling morals.  Disappointing.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Directed by Marc Webb
Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves
            I was initially wary about Amazing Spider-Man.  I loved the first trilogy (even the third one, although the second remains my favorite), but I was more just scared that the movie would tread over the same origins and end up doing the same thing.  I should’ve known that there was something more here.
            Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) loses his parents at a young age and ends up living with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen).  In search of information about his father’s death, he ends up getting bitten by a genetically-altered spider and becoming Spider-Man.  And of course, he also has to pursue his uncle’s killer, fight The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and fall in love with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) while avoiding her police captain father (Denis Leary).
            The thing that this film does really well is stretching things out.  It’s well-paced, but it also knows how to take its time.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first Spider-Man movie, but I remember it being very rapid fire.  He gets bitten, Ben dies, Peter gets out of high school.  It’s always trying to move on.  Here, Uncle Ben doesn’t die until a good half hour in, and I don’t even know how much longer it is after that until Peter puts on the suit for the first time.  You don’t feel it, though.  What the movie is really doing is giving you more time to get to know the characters and gives a better feel of Peter adjusting to his powers.  When he suddenly starts getting literal sticky fingers, it’s not just “Oh cool, I can do this now” and then moving on.  It’s several mishaps of accidental destruction until he figures it out.
            The tone has also shifted significantly along the way.  While the trilogy had its darker moments, they were fairly light.  Amazing is closer to the dark side.  Peter doesn’t come home after fighting villains with just a scratch he can hide, his entire face is bruised, even if he won.  There’s that constant element of the tragedy that always seems to loom over Peter.  He doesn’t just hide his identity so villains don’t find out about him; he doesn’t want people worrying about him.  The police mark him as a vigilante and pursue him throughout the movie, especially since some of his initially heroic-seeming actions quickly prove to have consequences.  And for its darker tone, it doesn’t forget its comedy.  Along with the standard slapstick, they gave Spider-Man some actual lines during several of the fights.  The wisecracks are here in full force.
            The choice of the Lizard as the villain had me worried initially.  I’ll admit this is mainly because his head looks like the Goombas from the Super Mario Bros movie.  But he works.  The best villains are always the dark reflection of the hero, which is exactly what the Lizard is.  Not only are they both marked by genetic changes, but their goals are similar.  They both feel they have a responsibility to do what they do.  It’s the simple fact that the Lizard’s responsibility becomes twisted along the way that makes him the villain.
            Amazing Spider-Man is the Batman Begins to the franchise.  For all the similarities to the first movie, it separates itself with a different tone and style.  If the new franchise can continue on this path, it could easily eclipse the original series.  And that would be really…incredible.